Thursday, July 24, 2008


I like to read mysteries, especially those based in the Boston
area, such as the books by Robert Parker and Dennis Lehane,
but I also am an avid reader of medieval mysteries because of
my lifelong interest in the period. I went through all of Ellis
Peters' Brother Cadfael series and for awhile after that
writer's death couldn't find anything else to measure up to it.
But over the past four or five years the works of some British
authors have begun to be published here in the states and I
now check regularly for books by Susanna Gregory, Bernard
Knight, Michael Jeck and Peter Tremayne, especially the latter
two, since Jeck's characters have connections with one of my
possible ancestors and Tremayne writes about medieval
Ireland in the pre Norman days.

Peter Tremayne is the pen name of Peter Beresford Ellis, a
Celtic scholar and a prolific writer. His detective is Sister
Fidelma, a nun in seventh century Ireland when both Ireland
and Britain were divided into small kingdoms. She also
happens to be a dalaigh, or in more modern terms, a lawyer
of sorts, and an administrator of justice for the King of
Cashel who is her brother. All these circumstances combine to
put Fidelma in a position to investigate mysteries involving
religious communities and/or political intrigue.

But it's not just the mysteries that fascinate me, it's also the
unique presentation of the Irish and Anglo Saxon cultures of
the time. For one thing, Fidelma is able to do things women
in other medieval countries were not permitted to do, and this
is because of the rights women were entitled to under Irish
laws. In no other country in the medieval period would you
find women judges, for example. Ireland was a beacon of
learning in these "Dark Ages" and women scholars studied
beside and argued with their male counterparts, again
something women were seldom allowed to do in other

Tremayne also uses the relationship between Sister Fidelma
and the Saxon monk Brother Eadulf to examine a conflict
between the Celtic Church and the Church of Rome. One
major difference was Irish clergy were allowed to marry and
often times there were religious houses inhabited by both
men and women, while Rome at the time of the novels was
beginning to try to enforce celibacy among its clerics.
As advocates of Rome's view pressed their case with the
rulers of the various British kingdoms, politics became
entangled with religious debate as kings tried to determine if
accepting Rome's view had advantages for them in advancing
their own agendas. And as the attraction between Fidelma
and Eadulf grows in each book the reader wonders how the
pair can resolve the conflict between their Churches'

So far there have been over twenty novels in the series with
most of them made available herein the states in the smaller
paperback size. I've enjoyed the exploration of Irish and
Anglo Saxon cultures as well as the mysteries and characters.
Fidelma is a bright, intelligentwoman but is no saint, and Eadulf
is a not just a "Watson" to her "Holmes" as they conduct their
investigations.(although I must confess I root for Eadulf. He
doesn't have an easy time of it as an Saxon living in Ireland.)

All in all, a very enjoyable way to learn more about my Irish

Written for the 7th Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture


M. Diane Rogers said...

Ah, a historical mystery reader...
You might also like Cora Harrison's mystery, "My Lady Judge: The First Burren Mystery" featuring Mara, a Brehon, and set in 1509 in the Burren on Ireland's west coast.

Bill West said...

Thanks for the tip. I'll look her up at work tomorrow!